Once upon a time, while shooting the breeze after a lesson, someone in our group of riders posed an important question: What horse would you want to ride in the event of a zombie apocalypse? If the horse were vital to your survival, and not just a sporting partner, which would you choose? Receiving the most votes, including mine, was an older, feisty chestnut mare named Natana. Not only would her pinned ears and gnashing teeth be enough to frighten away the scariest monster, but also she would instinctively know how to find water and shelter and live off the land. If she’d allow human company, your best bet would be to stay right by her side.
My young mare, Aria, received a couple votes, but her youth made her no match for the mature, experienced Natana. The geldings received no votes. In fact, we collectively imagined a band of fierce mares taking down all enemies and establishing themselves as earth’s new leaders, while the geldings milled about their paddocks wondering why breakfast was late.
Disclaimer: I love geldings. My childhood horses were all geldings who took good care of me, and I have one now. This isn’t a gelding-bashing column. Rather, it’s about my newfound appreciation for mares and what they bring to the table.
I’ve written quite a bit about my mare Aria: my journey to find her, the combination of green horse and green rider, our screw-ups in the show ring. But not about her mare-ness, maybe because, as many people have told me, she’s “one of the good ones.” She’s not moody or bitchy. I’ve never really considered whether I treat her differently than I would a gelding; I just try to treat her like the individual that she is.
But when I think about it, she does have some stereotypical mare behaviors. Most notably, she doesn’t like being told what to do. She prefers to change her lead before she’s asked. Once she is pointed at a fence, she wastes no time getting to it and getting us over it (to the detriment of her hunter career—she’s now transitioning to the jumper ring). Why lope around like you’re on vacation when your job is to jump all the fences?
Her newest “trick” is when I dismount she walks herself to the water trough, gets a drink, then heads straight to the crossties and turns around, all unassisted. She knows that’s the post-ride procedure: water, crosstie, get untacked. Why would she need a human to lead her? She simply takes care of business.
My training barn is also a breeding farm, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend significant time with the broodmares recently. I’ve taken a few shifts on foal watch, which involves checking all the mares who are close to their due dates every 20 minutes throughout the night.
No foals were born on my watches. I have a feeling when the mares saw me clumsily fidgeting with the lantern they agreed amongst themselves, “Better hold it in tonight, ladies, this one looks like a real rookie.” Of course, anyone who has waited for a mare to give birth knows that they prefer to do it on their own. Think you’ll sneak home to take a shower at dawn? Go ahead, but there will be a perfectly healthy, clean and nursing foal on the ground when you get back. We want to be there because of the tiny chance that something could go devastatingly wrong, but by and large, the mares don’t need us. They take care of business.
I feel it’s an honor to care for a mare before and after foaling. Learn where they like to be scratched, whether they want to be groomed, how close they’d like you to get to their foals. Some seem grateful for the reprieve: “Thank god you’re here, human, now you can entertain the little rascal, so I can eat in peace for once?” And some are more wary: “You may look from a distance, but if you get in between me and my baby I will make you wish you were never born.”
I like to photograph the newborn foals just as soon as they’re out. I figure they’ll only be that little once, and it should be documented. Most of the mama mares at our farm are fine with the paparazzi as long as the carrot fees are paid. But there are a couple who have no photo policies, and at least one who has a strict time limit, which I learned the hard way when the carrots ran out, and I found myself seriously considering scrambling up the fence to avoid death by hoof. But I’m not the best climber, and I was afraid I’d break my camera, so I just pleaded with her. “Please, please just let me out of your stall without kicking me, and I promise I’ll bring you more treats, and I’ll never ask for another photo ever again.” She relented and momentarily unpinned her ears. I emerged unscathed, but wiser. The mares take care of business, no matter what (or who) is in their way.
Even as foals, the fillies seem more precocious than the colts. Last year, out of 10 weanlings in what I have dubbed the “Kindergarten Paddock,” it was two fillies who executed an escape the first week of class. And they didn’t run to their mothers in the mare paddock. They chose instead to explore the property—systematically checking it for weaknesses, no doubt—before reporting back to their fellow kindergarteners. Already taking care of business.
Even the kindest mare, like mine, insists that you take her opinions into consideration, and I believe that being the partner of a mare has made me a better rider, just as spending time with the broodmares has made me a better horse person. I’ll continue to take foal-watching shifts just to be around them. Whether they are standing at attention, softly munching hay or just quietly standing over their foals, their wisdom, power and maternal energy is undeniable and inspiring. I’ll continue to get to know each one and provide their favorite treats and scratch their favorite spots. I just hope that in the event of apocalypse, they remember and let me tag along.
Lindsey Long lives in Southern California with her one tabby cat, a Great Dane, two hunter/jumpers, and a husband. She recently returned to riding after a 15-year hiatus and is desperately trying to make up for lost time while balancing a full-time job rife with deadlines. Her goals include winning pretty ribbons, finding appropriate distances with some degree of consistency, and not losing her breakfast at the mere thought of a hunter derby course. Read all of Lindsey’s blogs.